PrimaLoft® vs Down - Which Do You Need?
Now more than ever, outdoor manufacturers are pushing the limits on their insulated apparel with major investment into R&D and innovation. Products are going faster and getting lighter with each season, and jackets that weigh no more than your average T-shirt are able to provide warmth and comfort when the mercury drops below zero. The world’s best insulated gear is designed to combat convective loss of heat – otherwise known as the transfer of heat through moving air. Think about when a breeze picks up and you suddenly feel colder – this is convection at work transferring your body heat away from your skin, and into the air.
At the root of all the technical innovation, there are essentially two types of insulation: down insulation, and synthetic insulations. In extremely cold conditions, fleece and wool products are outperformed by high-loft insulated gear that is far more thermally efficient. PrimaLoft® is widely regarded as the highest-performing high-loft synthetic insulations on the market. So generally, outdoor enthusiasts must choose between down or PrimaLoft® if they want to remain warm in cold conditions. People ask us all the time “Which insulation is better?” Our answer: it depends what outdoor environment you find yourself in.
Before synthetic insulation was available in outdoor gear, there was down – the original insulator of the outdoor industry. The term “down” refers to the extremely fluffy clusters that are found under the outer layers of goose or duck feathers. As it has evolved in its use in outdoor apparel, footwear, and sleeping bags, the term “down” has become excessively generic and it is important for the outdoor enthusiast to know what’s going into their gear.
Not all down is created equal: in the high-end technical outerwear space, down fill power ranges from 550 up to 900 fill power, with the higher numbers providing the greatest warmth-per-weight. Fill-power is a measurement standard for the spatial displacement in cubic inches per one ounce of down. For example, one ounce of 650 fill-power down will displace 650 cubic inches – the higher the number means that greater airspace will be able to trap more of your body heat.
Fill power tests indicate the quality of down, and carts of down await cleaning and processing.
Additionally, there is a difference between duck down and goose down. Geese grow to be larger and more mature before they produce down, and so it is widely considered that geese will produce a higher-quality down. Many times consumers are not aware of the type of down within their garments.
For thermal efficiency - Mother Nature has provided the ultimate insulator for dry and low-activity conditions – down has unsurpassed ability to insulate when it comes to warmth per weight. Ounce-for-ounce, its thermal efficiency is unmatched, particularly in 700, 800, or 900 fill-power products because of the incredible loft created by each cluster of such high-quality down. It is a solid choice for fans of ultra-lightweight products if the weather is dry, it compresses very well for sleeping bags, and it is a solid choice for those who adventure to places too cold for wet precipitation.
The Achilles heel of down? Moisture. When down gets wet, it absorbs moisture, loses loft, and will no longer insulate effectively. For those that know their journey’s environmental conditions in advance, down can be the ultimate insulator, as long as it is packed and stored with care. This is why many people opt to own gear that is both down-insulated and insulated with PrimaLoft®.
Aside from its merits on thermal efficiency and compressibility, down has additional considerations for outdoor enthusiasts to consider. Down is a byproduct of the meat industry in the Eastern world, where duck and geese are a significant part of the diet. Down is sourced locally, so from a carbon footprint and sustainability standpoint, down ranks highly. However, because down has multiple suppliers, there has been concern with certain down-producing regions using live-plucking methods to harvest down. An investigation by Swedish News Program Kalla Fakta found that 50-80% of down is live-plucked, making it important to be aware of sourcing [See: Down Sourcing Article]. Another significant consideration for down outerwear or sleeping bags is that caring for down is considerably more high-maintenance than that of a PrimaLoft®-insulated item, requiring extra care or dry-cleaning. For example, great care must be taken to prevent down clusters from migrating in the wash [See: How to wash a down jacket], down detergents must be used in place of regular detergents, and drying requires full attention so that the down clusters won’t clump.
Bottom-Line: In arid conditions with low humidity and lack of perspiration, down is the ultimate insulator.
First developed as a “synthetic down” to replace down in military sleeping bags and clothing systems designed for wet environments, the PrimaLoft® family of insulations is the go to family in any presence of moisture, high aerobic activities, or if you expect variable conditions. The structure of PrimaLoft® was designed to mimic the structure of a down cluster, with its barbs and barbules - the small fronds that extend off the down’s quills - so in terms of weight and compressibility, PrimaLoft® is the closest synthetic to that of down. However, PrimaLoft® is significantly less bulky than down, giving a much more minimal appearance, and providing great freedom of movement.
PrimaLoft®’s ultimate advantage over down is its performance in the presence of wet conditions, where PrimaLoft® ONE only loses 4% of its insulating capability when completely wet. This is due to the hydrophobic (water-repelling) nature of PrimaLoft® fibers that maintain loft and still continue to trap body heat even in wet conditions. In dry conditions, how can PrimaLoft® ONE, the highest-performing synthetic insulation on the market, be compared to that of down? In an article on insulated outerwear with PrimaLoft’s Director of Global Business Development, Vanessa Mason explains that PrimaLoft® can be compared to 550 fill-power down in dry conditions.
PrimaLoft® has excellent water repellency - so it works in variable conditions.
What does this mean to outdoor enthusiasts? Not only are ‘wet conditions’ as simple as being caught in a rainstorm – humidity and perspiration are also common factors to consider. For example, when skiing, riding or doing any aerobic activity, your body works up a sweat and emits heat and perspiration, but when you hop on the lift or suddenly sit idle, you can easily start to freeze with an insulation that absorbs water. Likewise, significant humidity or rain can permeate a down jacket or sleeping bag and cause it to lose effectiveness, because water is absorbed by the down.
A widely-known axiom of PrimaLoft® insulations are the “easy-care” advantage that they have over down. Specific care instructions vary by garment manufacturer, but as a general rule, we suggest that you machine wash and rinse your PrimaLoft®-insulated gear in cold water on the gentle cycle, then tumble dry warm. We suggest you avoid dry-cleaning, bleach, ironing, or steaming. In fact, because some PrimaLoft® fibers are heat-activated, the washing and drying process both cleans and reinvigorates the insulation. This gives the flexibility to wash your outerwear, sleeping bags, or gloves after coming in from a long weekend in the outdoors and thoroughly clean them for the next use, especially useful for those who need gear that is hypoallergenic. It also makes it easy to remove dirt that could otherwise compromise thermal performance over time.
Bottom-Line: If variable conditions are predicted, humidity is high, perspiration is expected, or if you just would rather have insurance against inclement weather, PrimaLoft® is your go-to choice.
The down jacket and the PrimaLoft®-insulated jacket that are hanging in your closet both have their place. On a bitter cold day in the middle of winter while the sun is shining, the down jacket is unmatched for providing the greatest warmth for its light weight. A PrimaLoft®-insulated jacket is the best choice in any type of situation where there may be moisture present. The ultimate benefit of a PrimaLoft®-insulated jacket is its “go-to” abilities, where it is similar to down in most ways, but if you get trapped in variable weather, you needn’t worry. Although our answer to the question is “you will probably want to own both types of jackets,” the ultimate choice is up to you!
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